Lucia’s is dead, long live Lucia’s

Former employees and current ethical sourcing advocates reflect on the loss of Uptown's farm-to-table institution.

Former employees and current ethical sourcing advocates reflect on the loss of Uptown's farm-to-table institution. Tony Nelson

“Tom and I have been going there together for 16 years, and he proposed to me at our favorite table in June. Oh, we're going to miss Lucia's so much.”

They started flooding Facebook after the news broke Monday afternoon -- the comments from longtime regulars shaken by the abrupt announcement. Memories of nights spent laughing with friends on the patio or fighting for space in the bustling wine bar. The anniversary dinners, the birthday drinks. First dates, first jobs.

After 32 years, Lucia’s is closing. The last day of service will be October 14.

That’s a good run, by any standards, and especially in the ever-fickle restaurant industry. But if the recollections seem a little melodramatic, a little overly maudlin, well… it’s just that it’s hard to overstate what that little restaurant at 31st and Hennepin meant to this city.

“There wouldn’t be a Birchwood if there hadn’t been a Lucia’s,” Birchwood Cafe co-owner Tracy Singleton says simply.

Before she opened her Seward cafe -- now 22 years old and an inspiration and institution in its own right -- it was Lucia’s where she says she first connected with “real food.”

“Working at Lucia’s was a turning point in my life, professionally and personally, because being able to have exposure to that kind of food helped me develop a healthy relationship with food, which I didn’t really have before,” she adds.

As a kid growing up in the Seventies and early Eighties, the child of two busy, working parents in the peak of the low-fat, no-fat craze, her meals came down to some ungodly combination of pseudo-”health” and, moreso, convenience. (“It wasn’t farmers markets and CSAs, it was, ‘What’s in a box in the freezer that I can open up and microwave?’”)

Singleton’s never been shy about her love for Lucia’s, and she isn’t now. “When I opened, my business partner … she worked at Lucia’s too. We both came from Lucia’s. Lucia’s informed the principles and values that this was founded on.”

There’s the obvious: that other restaurants at the time weren’t buying their food from farmers or putting an emphasis on making everything from scratch. But it was more than that.

“Aside from farm-to-table, the teamwork that was there, the respect that was there, the ethics that were there -- it was a whole shift for me.”

“A lot of us went through there -- I was just thinking about it,” adds Beth Fisher, now the executive chef at Uptown’s French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, who worked at Lucia’s in the late ’90s. “Susan [Muskat] down at Moose & Sadie’s; Paul Schula at Bev’s Wine Bar. So many of us went through that kitchen. Some stayed for two years, some stayed for 15 years … there was no reason to leave.”

Fisher remembers the way the pioneering chef would work beside you in the kitchen, the way she’d be right there next to you on the floor. How she always worked every bit as hard as -- or harder than -- every last one of her coworkers and employees. “And I think we all learned that, and went on to do our own things with that instilled in us. People really respect you when you’re standing knee-deep in the line.”

It was a kind of caring that didn’t change when you left the kitchen. Singleton says they’ve remained friends and that Lucia has been a mentor of hers -- always generous with her time and resources and advice -- throughout her 22 years at the helm of Birchwood.

She agrees, too, with the essence of what the pioneering chef humbly told the Star Tribune earlier this week: that all good things come to an end. She doesn’t know the people who purchased Lucia’s a few years ago, or how that changed the restaurant overall. “I don’t think it was the same as when Lucia was there,” she says.

Fisher concurs. “As soon as it sold, it changed. Lucia was the soul of the place, to me. Everybody was trying to support it and make it happen, but I think running it from a business side instead of a personal, passionate side... it just leaked through in too many places.”

As for what the loss of Lucia’s means for the Twin Cities, Singleton notes that it’s in no way the death of the farm-to-table movement (a term she doesn’t love, by the way). In fact, more and more restaurants are embracing and emphasizing integrity in their food sourcing all the time. Still: “That’s something that [Lucia’s] started, and I think that will continue. At least it will at Birchwood.”

“And still relevant. What she did is still relevant, I think. At least I have to hope so, because that’s what we’re doing.”

“But it is,” she adds. “It’s the loss of an institution.”